The Courage of Volodymyr Zelensky

One of the chapters in my new book is titled The Hope Required for Courage. The phrase encapsulates a moment when, in the midst of Hitler’s occupation of Holland, the main character Sam is called upon to trust in a German to save his brother’s life. Finding hope in human decency gives Sam the courage to act.

As my brain tumbles with anxiety at what the people of Ukraine are enduring in these dark days since the Russian invasion, I can’t help considering the phrase in relation to Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky.

The heroism and resolve of the man might come from anger or faith or fear. Those would be wholly appropriate motivations as Putin steps up his attacks using cluster munitions and vacuum bombs, vile weapons that violate international laws and basic decency. But I can’t help wondering if there is more to Zelensky’s fierce determination.

I am here, he tells his country every day, assuring them of his continued existence. I am with you. Such words give hope, and such hope infuses his people with courage, and such courage has galvanized the world.  

While global anger and disbelief has come out in a collective gasp of action more immediate and unified than that against Hitler’s invasion of Poland at the outset of WWII, Putin’s actions are not without precedent. He invaded Crimea eight years ago, and his continued efforts to take the Russian-separatist areas of the Donbass region were, and continue to be, violations of international laws and treatises.

So why this visceral global response? And why now?

It seems something has shifted in our psyche, and in the world, and I think it has to do with our need to speak, act and fight FOR something real and important; Ukraine specifically, and democracy in general.

Over the past years, both democratic countries and authoritarian regimes around the world have seen a string of self-serving elected officials and cartoon leaders, one, as my daughter put it, the dumb orange guy from the apprentice who became president. We’ve watched them fight vain and inane battles over social media, sniping from the bleachers and usurping the real concerns of the average person into rhetoric and ideology that often seeks only power and money. Such ‘leaders’ have sought to divide and destroy. They have not been FOR anything, have not given us a vision to inspire or a moral code to uphold.

We’ve not been immune in Canada, most of us mystified by a trucker convoy that paralyzed the downtown of our capital city and disrupted trade worth millions at our borders. Instead of taking a beat to assess, right wing politicians supported the ‘protest’ that sought to delegitimize the very government they are a part of. The people involved toted the goal of ‘freedom’, but in reality they were anti. . . well. . . everything. Anti- science, anti-government, anti-establishment, anti-media. It’s hard to get behind a bunch of people camped out in warm trucks, or lazing in hot-tubs on the grounds of parliament while shouting about how un-free they are. It was theatre of the absurd.

But Ukrainians standing up to the Russian onslaught; Ukrainian civilians taking up arms to defend their fragile democracy; men and women committed to something bigger than themselves with little hope of success, but determination just the same—that is galvanizing. And a leader standing with his people and willing to die for and with them—that is someone to stand with.

The bad guy miscalculated the effects of the Ukrainian resolve on the rest of us. Money, arms and support are pouring into Ukraine. The EU, NATO, even China are condemning Putin’s actions and lowering the boom with biting sanctions, no-fly areas, and freezing the billion dollar pocketbooks of Putin and his cronies. It’s been swift and unified because anyone in a democratic country who’s watched the slow erosion knows how vulnerable we all are. Even the authoritarian regimes of Orban in Hungary and Erdogen in Turkey have given Putin a hard no. They might be authoritarian but they want to be that way in a country outside the Russian sphere of influence. Freedom is a relative thing when you once suffered under Stalin.

I’m not pollyanna about this. It’s easy for us to cheer from our cozy homes while ignoring the erosion of democratic institutions globally and attacks on democracies from within. And we shoulder a collective guilt at global governmental refusal to actually fight with Ukraine on the ground. It’s all about pragmatism and not poking a beast that has his nuclear arsenal on red-alert. Fair enough.

But we can at the same time be inspired by the Ukrainian president’s leadership in a world short of convictions, his resolve despite the truth of his odds, and actions that have pulled the Western world along in a fight for a greater ideal. We can recognize the hope and raw courage it takes to be Volodymyr Zelensky.

Ruby’s Big Laugh

In her novel Probably Ruby, Lisa Bird-Wilson (Doubleday Canada, 2021), takes us through the twists of fate and conscious, if sometimes questionable, choices in the life of Ruby, an Indigenous woman adopted at birth by a white couple. Big- hearted Ruby searches for identity and a sense of belonging and, along with the reader, comes to recognize that those two things don’t always equate.

Chapters fraught with the heartache of lost children and substance abuse exist right alongside glimpses into joy and friendship and the complicated love of family. What is wonderful about this story is that we see Ruby as whole, as containing all the elements of a life despite, and sometimes because of, her search to determine who she is in a world that wants to prescribe that for her.

What Bird-Wilson does not ask us to do is to feel sorry for her protagonist. Ruby is loud and raw and lovely, and her big booming laugh rings through the pages. She is self-aware even as she becomes mired in the consequences of bad choices. And Ruby is brutally honest.

“Something Ruby didn’t tell anyone: she could spot an Indigenous adoptee a mile away. Pick them out of the crowd like it was a serious parlour game. Sixth sense. And it wasn’t just a visilibility thing…. likely, she thought, because of that window, a blank spot like a slipped stitch in a knitted scarf — once it was missed there was no going back to fix it. It just existed.”

Ruby tries really hard. She is always moving forward, learning American Sign Language, “back when she wanted nothing more than to learn a secret language. If she had a superpower it would be invisility. Pretending to be deaf was the next best thing.”

Ruby’s stories are interspersed with those of others, women who gave up babies because there was no other choice, men who survived abuse by priests at residential schools. There is a fluidity to the book, the stories weaving into each other and connecting us to Ruby, her big laugh reminding us that she doesn’t want our pity. She only needs us to see her as joyful and flawed, perfect and terrible, to witness her life as a whole, and to love all of her.

The Beauty of Sylvie

As she danced, the image of a river came to her. A river branching into multiples of itself, no longer a single stream but a delta. And if her life were such a delta she might let the flow take her in a direction far from the current she was in now.”

So begins our adventures with Sylvie, the wildly engaging, funny and flawed protagonist of the award- winning If Sylive Had Nine Lives, a novel by Saskatoon’s Leona Theis, published by Freehand Books.

Playing with structure, plot and voice, Theis takes us on a raft ride down the what-if streams of a life. At times hilarious, in others poignant, each chapter of this novel is a reflection on the choices a person could have made, should have made, forgot to make or fell into. From an almost-cancelled marriage to falling for an old flame; a sister she mocks to an aunt who picks her up at each failed turn, these stories haunt with the notion that one moment, one decision can affect a lifetime.

Sylvie is fervently human as are the characters surrounding her and the world they act upon and which impacts upon them. A master of language, Theis renders these stories in prose that makes you catch your breath, makes you want to read that sentence or paragraph one more time, the beauty of word choice and image filling the reader with longing, joy or laughter.

I should have written this review long ago, but better late than never. Read Sylvie!